Who is Marilyn Monroe?

“It’s all make believe, isn’t it?” – Marilyn Monroe

In the early hours of the morning of August 5, 1962, the body of a Hollywood legend was discovered by her psychotherapist Dr Ralph Greenson in the bedroom of her Brentwood home. She was 36 year old and her name was Marilyn Monroe.

The Hollywood actress was found lying naked, face down on her bed, with her right hand gripping the telephone receiver and an empty bottle of Nembutal sleeping pills by her side. There were 14 other bottles of medicines and tablets on the night stand. It was estimated that she had died between 8:30pm and 10:30pm. The then deputy examiner, Dr Noguchi, has said that even in death Marilyn Monroe was beautiful. He conducted an autopsy and concluded that the actress had died of acute barbiturate poisoning. The dosages found in Marilyn’s body were several times over the lethal limit. Her doctors and psychiatrists stated that she was prone to “severe fears and frequent depressions” with “abrupt and unpredictable” mood changes, and had possibly intentionally overdosed several times in the past. It was concluded that her death indicated a “probable suicide”.

And so began one of the most compelling and enduring Hollywood mysteries. During her career, her movies would gross more than $200 million. But who was Marilyn Monroe?

Marilyn Monroe was born as Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, California, and was later baptised Norma Jeane Baker. Her mother Gladys Pearl Baker developed psychiatric problems and was later placed in a mental institution. Marilyn would later maintain that one of her earliest memories was of her mother trying to smother her with a pillow in her crib. She never knew her father, but believed he was the actor Clark Gable, even though there is no evidence to support this. Norma Jeane had a half-sister, whom she met only a half-dozen times and would spend much of her childhood in foster care and in an orphanage.

Marilyn Monroe

In 1937, Grace and Doc Goddard were paid $25 weekly by Norma Jeane’s mother to raise her. The couple were deeply religious and would not allow Marilyn to go to the pictures. In 1942, Doc’s job was transferred to the East Coast, and the Goddard’s could not afford to take Norma Jeane with them. She was put back into foster care and was subsequently sexually assaulted on several occasions. “At 12, I looked like a girl of 17. My body was developed and shapely. But no one knew this but me. I still wore the blue dress and the blouse the orphanage provided. They made me look like an overgrown ummox,” Marilyn said of her teenage years. (www.github.com)

She dropped out of high school at 15 and on June 19, 1942, at the age of 16, Norma Jeane married her merchant marine boyfriend Jimmy Dougherty. He was later sent to the South Pacific and Norma Jeane found work in a munitions factory in Burbank, where she was discovered by a photographer. By the time Dougherty returned in 1946, Norma Jeane was a successful model and aspiring actress. She changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and dyed her hair blonde. The couple divorced that year and it was also the year that Marilyn signed her first movie contract.

Marilyn’s career did not really take off until her small appearance in John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950) caught people’s attention. That year, she also played Claudia Carwell in ‘All About Eve’ and garnered praise from many quarters. In 1953, she made her mark in ‘Niagara’ and was paired with Jane Russell in the hit musical comedy ‘Gentleman Prefer Blondes’ (1953).

Marilyn Monroe had truly arrived. With her breathy voice and hourglass figure, she had unmistakable sex appeal. A mixture of innocence, vulnerability and earthiness made her hugely appealing. The Austrian-born film-maker Billy Wilder said of her: “The luminosity of that face! There has never been a woman of such voltage on the screen, with the exception of Garbo”(www.filmreference.com). Once asked by a reporter what she wore in bed, Marilyn replied, “What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course” (www.goodreads.com).

She followed the success of ‘Gentleman Prefer Blondes’ with ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ (1953) with Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ (1954) with Donald O’Connor and Ethel Merman, and ‘The Seven Year Itch’ (1955) with Tom Ewell.

She moved to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio and in 1956, she dramatically returned to the screen in the comedy ‘Bus Stop’. Baptised and raised a Pentecostal Christian, Marilyn converted to Judaism that same year. In 1959, she earned ‘Best Actress in a Comedy’, at the Golden Globe Awards for the hugely successful comedy ‘Some Like It Hot’ with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. In 1960, she appeared in ‘Let’s Make Love’ with Yves Montand and 1961, she starred in the John Huston movie ‘The Misfits’ opposite Clark Gable and Mongomery Clift. The movie was a disappointment and would prove to be her last completed picture. In 1962, Marilyn was dismissed from ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ for missing many days of shooting and the movie was stopped after her co-star Dean Martin refused to make it without her. “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul,” Marilyn once famously said (www.quoteinvestigator.com)

Marilyn had always been fragile and one of her most exasperating quirks was her tardiness. But now it seemed she was beginning to unravel. A year before she died, she checked into the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic. To her alarm, she was locked in a padded cell and was only released when she called her ex-husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Her marriage to DiMaggio, in 1954, lasted only nine months and she was married to playwright Arthur Miller from 1956 to 1961.

Among her many lovers were Yves Montand, Frank Sinatra, Yul Bryner, Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Elia Kazan and Howard Hughes. She is also alleged to have had an affair with Joan Crawford. Then, on May 18, 1962, Marilyn famously sang “Happy Birthday, Mr President” at John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration. But it would not be until 1973 that Norman Mailer alleged in his book that Marilyn had had an affair with the American president. The book also started the conspiracies about her death, claiming that both the CIA and FBI were responsible.

Kennedy had already met Marilyn twice before his interest was spiked at a dinner party in New York at the end of February 1962. The actress Arlene Dahl was also at the party and she said: “Marilyn walked in and everything stopped, everyone stopped. It was magical, really. I’ve never seen anyone stop a room like that.” (www.dailymail.co.uk) Evidence suggests that Marilyn and the American president spent a weekend together in March 1962, while Kennedy was staying at Bing Crosby’s house. In addition, the White House switchboard recorded calls from Marilyn during 1962, which were ignored by the president.

In the last few days of her life, Marilyn had signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to make two movies and was the cover star of both Life and Paris-Match. But she was also suffering with depression and remained inside her modest Spanish-style bungalow. The only visitors were her psychotherapist Dr Ralph Greenson, with whom she was having a sexual liaison, and the English actor Peter Lawford.

At 3am on August 5, 1962, Dr Greenson was summoned by Marilyn’s anxious housekeeper, Eunice Murray. Greenson arrived shortly after, and unable to enter her bedroom broke the glass on the French windows. He found Marilyn unresponsive and phoned her personal physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg. The police were subsequently called, responding at approximately 4:30am. Murray was washing the bed linen when the police arrived and they noted how neat and tidy Marilyn’s bedroom was. Guy Hockett, the undertaker, arrived at 5:40am and placed the time of death at between 9:30pm and 11:30pm. Marilyn was 36 years old.

Mystery surrounds her death and there is speculation that she may have been murdered, although the cause of death was officially ruled as ‘probable suicide’. No suicide note was found. Conspiracy theories abound implicating the Kennedy’s and even the Mafia in her death. It is clear that Kennedy regarded Marilyn as a loose cannon, but could this have been enough to have her murdered?

Transcripts of tapes made by Marilyn to her psychotherapist reveal that she was far from suicidal. And a letter has since emerged written by Marilyn to her acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, eight months before she died. It details her plans to set up an independent film production company with Marlon Brando. Furthermore, in 2015, the UK TV production ‘Autopsy: The Last Hours of Marilyn Monroe’ explored the sudden death of the actress. Leading forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd concluded that her death was accidental.

Marilyn’s funeral took place at 1:00pm on August 8, 1962, at the Westwood Village Mortuary Chapel on the grounds of the Westwood Memorial Cemetery. The private service was conducted by Lutheran minister Reverend A. J. Soldan. During the service, Marilyn lay partially exposed in a heavy-gauge solid bronze casket lined with champagne-coloured satin. She was dressed in her favourite green Emilio Pucci dress and a green chiffon scarf. For the last time, Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder did her make-up. Lee Strasberg delivered a eulogy before a small group of friends and family. Her ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio, famously had red roses delivered to her crypt for the next 20 years.

Marilyn Monroe overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the most enduring icons of modern memory. She may have appeared in only 30 films in her lifetime, yet she left an indelible mark. Marilyn is deservedly an icon. Her ex-husband Arthur Miller was surely right when he said: “To have survived, she would have had to either be more cynical or even further from reality that she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” (www.people.com)

But the last words belong to Lee Strasberg, from his eulogy to Marilyn:

“Marilyn Monroe was a legend. In her own lifetime, she created a myth of what a poor girl from a deprived background could attain. For the entire world, she became a symbol of the eternal feminine.” (www.ourmarilynmonroe.co.uk)

Words: Alex Karas
Image: Rita Gomes

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